Book Corner – April 2019 (3)

Best detective stories of Cyril Hare

One of the joys of the sort of crime anthologies that the inestimable Martin Edwards compiles is that you come across a wide range of writers, some of whom you are happy to have encountered on that one occasion but there are others whom you wish to explore further. Cyril Hare, the pseudonym of the English barrister, judge and crime writer, Gordon Clark, taken from the name of his Chambers, Hare Court, and his house in Battersea, Cyril Mansions, is one of the latter.

This collection of thirty short stories, some very short, was originally published in 1959 and in America appeared under the title of Death Among Friends. Many of the stories were written for the London Evening Standard in the days when newspapers and magazines dd their bit to foster and develop literary talent. Your fish and chips were wrapped up in a better quality of writing in those days.

What I liked about Hare is that he wrote with a certain panache, a pinch of humour, his plots generally held together and quite often there was a clever twist at the end. To a greater or lesser degree most of the stories in this collection exhibit some or all of these qualities and there are very few duds and most stand the test of time.

For me the one that didn’t was a story called The Rivals, a tale of two suspects, both romantically associated with a girl who is murdered. Both point the finger of suspicion at each other. The identity of the murderer is revealed in the final paragraph and, to be fair, the clues had been signposted during the narrative but you would have had to have had a detailed knowledge of what shoes a chap wore to dances at the time to crack it.

The funniest was The Tragedy of Young McIntyre in which a young, struggling barrister sues his voice coach for ruining his voice. The plot, of course, is absurd but Hare rescues what could have easily been a farce with some aplomb. Some knowledge of the laws of testacy wouldn’t come amiss for the opener, Miss Burnside’s Dilemma, but it has a clever and slightly surprising ending, which sets the scene nicely for what is to come.

In very broad terms, the book falls into three parts; stories involving the law and principally wills, good old-fashioned murder and what might be lumped together as miscellaneous crimes, the latter having more than their fair share of Hare’s characteristic black humour. Perhaps the most atmospheric, ghostly and even bizarre tale was A Life for A Life in which a World War One gas victim has an attack brought on by a pea-souper of a fog and is saved by a pharmacist who died a long time ago.

I am a fan of closed room mysteries and I enjoyed Weight and See which demonstrated that there are some advantages to being overweight. Inevitably, Hare’s most famous lawyer cum detective, Francis Pettigrew, makes an appearance in a couple of the stories and a number are set in his stomping ground of Markhampton. The Children of the Week stories, whilst all insubstantial, were clever and showcase Hare’s technique to good effect.

As always with these collections, there are some stories which are better than others but they are all short enough not to feel you have wasted too much time if you don’t like them.

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